Three of my neighbors were standing in the side yard, their hands down at their sides, staring at the fence. I recognized them all, even if I only knew one—Mr. Carson from next door—by name. None of them were moving. One of them, a woman, was wearing a bathrobe a little newer than mine. Her socks were soaked and grass stained. The other woman was wearing one shoe, and her hair looked like it was halfway-combed. I bit my lip. They were just standing there.
Then Mr. Carson turned and looked at me.
I let out a little scream and stumbled backward, falling over the couch in my retreat. His eyes were like Chave’s had been: totally empty of anything resembling humanity or life. Dead eyes. He looked at me like a man who had crawled out of his own grave.
I didn’t stand up once I managed to recover from my fall. Instead, I scrambled backward on all fours, keeping my eyes fixed on the window. If they were moving, I didn’t want to know about it, didn’t want to see it—and yet somehow, I knew they were moving, that Mr. Carson at least was walking toward the window where he’d seen me, and the other two were very likely following him. I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew, just like I knew that I was alone.
The slap of Mr. Carson’s palms hitting the window was one of the loudest things I’d ever heard. Beverly came racing into the living room, barking madly, and threw herself up onto the couch. Her paws left muddy prints behind them, standing out boldly against the pale tan cushions. She kept barking, her ears flat against her skull, her attention fully focused on the window.
Beverly was inside. That meant that there was no longer anything between the gate and the open back door.
Sheer terror forced me to my feet, and I ran for the back door, not allowing myself to look at the window. At least one of them was there. If all three of them were there, I might be fine. I might—
The woman in the bathrobe was on the back porch. I screamed again and grabbed the handle, yanking on the heavy glass door. There was a moment when I thought that it wasn’t going to move. Then it slipped into position on the track, allowing me to pull it shut before the woman reached me. I fumbled with the lock, snapping it into position. Her hands hit the glass, palms first. Then she stopped. Completely. She was still breathing, but there was no other movement; she might as well have been a statue.
A statue with dead, dead eyes.
“Oh God oh God oh God,” I gasped. My heart was hammering against my ribs, and the sound of drums was in my ears again. It was almost loud enough to drown out Beverly’s barking. I wanted to close the curtain and shut out the sight of the woman’s empty stare. I couldn’t make myself move. In that moment, it was like my body had decided that it was no longer interested in working in tandem with my brain.
Maybe this was what it felt like for Sherman and the others when the sleeping sickness first caught hold of them. Like they had suddenly become observers in their own lives, completely unable to make their bodies respond to their commands. Maybe this was how it was forever. Maybe they never got to stop watching—
The woman at the back door raised one hand before slapping her palm deliberately back against the glass. I jumped, startled into motion. Her dead gaze never wavered. Beverly was still barking, and the hammering drumbeat of my heart was still thunderous in my ears.
I looked into the woman’s dead eyes and knew that whoever she’d been a few hours before, she wasn’t that person anymore. There was no experience or identity in her eyes; they weren’t just dead, they were empty. Everything that made her who she was had been drained away, replaced by some set of instincts I didn’t understand. Instincts that had, for whatever reason, drawn her and her companions to my yard.
She slapped the door again, her palm pressing white as a snail’s belly against the glass. I took a step backward. Even that small motion felt like a victory. See, it said, you aren’t like them. You still move when you want to move. You’re still you, and not anything else. The thought helped me take another step. The woman kept slapping the door, each movement slow and deliberate. I didn’t take my eyes off her as I kept backing up, finally reaching the table where I’d left my phone.
Picking it up, I hit the voice recognition switch on the side—a helpful leftover from the days when I’d been speaking but not yet capable of reliably reading the controls on my own phone—and said, “Dial Dr. Steven Banks.”
The words surprised me. I’d been intending to call the police right up until I spoke. At the same time, calling Dr. Banks made perfect sense. If SymboGen knew things about the sleeping sickness that they weren’t sharing, maybe they’d also know how to make the people around my house go away. The police wouldn’t have that information. I didn’t want anybody getting hurt.
“Dialing,” said the phone politely, switching itself to speaker in response to my command. The sound of ringing followed.
A man I didn’t know picked up the line, saying, “Dr. Banks’s office. Dr. Banks is in a meeting right now, may I take a message?”
“No, you can transfer me to him,” I said. “This is Sally Mitchell. It’s an emergency, and even if you’re new, you still have a card with instructions telling you what to do if I call. Please. Put me through to Dr. Banks.” It wasn’t the politest greeting ever. I didn’t feel like I had time for much politeness. Not with the dead-eyed woman pawing at my back door and staring at me like I was the answer to a question she was no longer fully capable of asking.
“O-of course, Miss Mitchell,” stammered the man on my phone, sounding stunned. “I’ll put you right through.”